Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.10.07
Elizabeth Key Fowden, The Barbarian Plain: Saint Sergius between Rome and Iran. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999. Pp. xix + 227; 17 b/w ills. ISBN 0-520-21685-7. $55.00.
Reviewed by Jas' Elsner, Corpus Christi College
Word count: 1028 words
In his brilliant and underrated account of pagan pilgrimage to the great temple of Atargatis in Hierapolis (Manbij) in Syria, Lucian evokes the multicultural constituency of the goddess' adherents. He tells us that "no temple is more sacred nor any region more holy" than Hierapolis, whose sanctuary is full of "expensive artefacts and ancient offerings" (De Dea Syria 10). The treasures come from as far afield as 'Arabia, Phoenicia, Babyonia and still more from Cappadocia' (De Dea Syria 10) while the lavish votive offerings that adorned her statue summed up the riches of a whole world largely outside the Roman empire: "There are also many sardonyxes and sapphires and emeralds, which the Egyptians, Indians, Ethiopians, Medes, Armenians and Babylonians bring" (De Dea Syria 32).1
Likewise, in the ruins of the desert town of Dura Europos, in the same Syrian plain, a religious and artistic interface of Roman and Parthian is attested in the characteristic artistic styles and the jumble of deities whose origins reach equally into the East and the West as well as more locally in Syria itself (the latter being represented not only by Atargatis and the gods of near-by Palmyra but also by a very early temple to Jesus Christ).2 Clearly the 'Barbarian Plain', as Procopius called the Syrian Steppe, had a long history as a fundamental frontier zone not only politically, between the great empires of Persia and Rome, but also culturally.
Elizabeth Key Fowden's articulate and well-written account of this region -- part historical geography and part religious history -- fills in the Christian end of this story by focusing (a brilliant move) on a major local saint whose appeal stretched as far as Constantinople and Rome to the Byzantine West and beyond Ctesiphon to the Sassanian East. If I have a major regret it is that the book does not tell the pre-Christian story -- which is every bit as interesting and as relevant to the historical complexity of this frontier region between empires which found multicultural religious appeal to be part of the solution to its difficulties. When Theodoret in the fifth century wrote in his Historia Religiosa that St Symeon the Stylite (atop his pillar at Qalat Siman, also in the same Syrian desert) attracted 'Ishmaelites, Persians, Armenians, Iberians, Himyarits, Spaniards, Britons, Gauls and Italians' (26.11, quoted by Fowden at p. 59), he was effectively making the same point as Lucian three centuries earlier.3 Indeed, it was the Christian bishop Alexander of Hierapolis, from the very city of Atargatis now Christianized, who was responsible in the years immediately before the Council of Ephesus in 431 for setting up the Shrine of St Sergius in the Mesopotamian wilderness at Rusafa. As Fowden well describes, it was only with the coming of Islam and the conquest of the Roman East that the 'Barbarian Plain' lost its centuries-old distinction as the supreme frontier between worlds which had only been so temporarily breached by Alexander. So Islam is certainly the right point for ending the story, but Sergius -- a relative newcomer into the sacred politics of the Syrian desert -- might be said to provide an insufficient beginning.
Fowden's book consists of 6 chapters and an introduction. The latter is a brief and helpful historical geography of the 'Barbarian Plain'. Then she moves to her saint. Chapter 1 ("Portraits of a Martyr") enters the fraught world of reading history out of hagiography and reading hagiography in its correct historiographic milieu. F. is broadly convincing in rejecting the extreme position (taken by David Woods and Tim Barnes, following Hippolyte Delehaye) that the Passio of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus has no historical value, though her dating of a putative martyrdom under Maximinus Daia in c.312 remains at best a good guess. Her dating of the Passio itself to the period immediately after Bishop Alexander's dedication of the Shrine (and his investment there of 300 lb of gold) seems sensible. Clearly the shrine grew relatively popular swiftly (in what was the golden age of pilgrimage to the saints in the East), and it is heartening to see F. use and illustrate a range of visual sources to investigate this topic.
From the saint himself, F. moves in chapter 2 to the place of martyr cult on the frontier. She examines the fascinating case of Mayperqat, east of the Tigris on the very borders of Armenia, Persia and the Roman Empire, where Bishop Marutha (who had served more than once as an imperial envoy to the Persian court) gathered the bones of all those martyred in Iranian territory. With the backing of Theodosius II, he built a grand city full of churches and christened it Martyropolis. Its interest lies in its appeal across the two empires, in which it was to be emulated by Rusafa, the subject of chapter 3. Here F. places the city and cult in its context within the frontier zone (moving back from religious history to historical geography) and gives a good archaeologically-grounded account of the city, its churches, pilgrimage and liturgy. Chapter 4 discusses the spread of the cult of St Sergius in Syria and Mesopotamia, assessing the archaeological and epigraphic evidence place by place (in rather minute detail). The appeal of the saint within the Iranian empire and among the Arabs is extended further in chapter 5 ("Frontier Shrine and Frontier Saint"), where it is clear that he could figure as a kind of deity within polytheistic circles as well as a Christian saint in famous buildings such as the church dedicated to him by Justinian in Constantinople. The final chapter, entitled "St Sergius after Islam" is really a conclusion about the loss of the age-old frontier identity for the Syrian plain (and hence for Rusafa) after the Ummayad triumph in the 630's.
All this is well done and clearly told. A minor cavil is F.'s use of the term 'non-Chalcedonian' -- by which she means 'Monophysite' or 'anti-Chalcedonian' according to p. 3 and the index entry, but which could equally mean Nestorian on the face of it. Indeed at pp. 122-3, it is not entirely clear how the Nestorians and the non-Chalcedonians differ, while at pp. 140-1 they are opposed.
1. For issues of multiculturalism, cultural mix, translation and resistance in the De Dea Syria, see my "Describing Self in the Language of Other: Pseudo(?)-Lucian at the Temple of Hire" in S. Goldhill (ed.), Being Greek Under Rome: Cultural Identity, the Second Sophistic and the Development of Empire, Cambridge (CUP), forthcoming. There is a new edition with commentary currently in preparation by Jane Lightfoot.
2. See F. Millar, "Dura Europos Under Parthian Rule" in J. Wiesehöfer (ed.), Das Partherreich und seine Zeugnisse, Stuttgart, 1998, 473-92.
3. For another link between Symeon and Lucian's Atargatis, see D. Frankfurter, "Stylites and Phallobates: Pillar Religions in Late Antique Syria," Vigiliae Christianae 44 (1990) 168-98.